Academic journal article Parameters

Future Warfare and the Decline of Human Decisionmaking

Academic journal article Parameters

Future Warfare and the Decline of Human Decisionmaking

Article excerpt

This article was first published in the Winter 2001-02 issue of Parameters.

To date, most warfare has taken place within what Robert J. Bunker terms "human space," meaning the traditional four-dimensional battlespace that is discernible to the human senses. (1) In essence, war has always consisted of human beings running, dodging, and hurling things at each other, lately with the help of machinery. Even such revolutionary developments as gunpowder only enhanced our ability to throw things at enemies we could see and hear.

The first crude examples of autonomous weapons were probably the early experiments by the US Navy and Sperry Gyroscope Company on unpiloted aircraft during the last years of the First World War. Then came the advent of electronics, especially radar, and warfare began to leave the realm of human senses. Ships and planes could fire on enemies that were no more than ghostly green images on a cathode ray tube. Later came military robots such as cruise missiles that were able to autonomously execute missions formerly requiring manned systems. Advanced radar engagement systems enabled pilots to locate, identify, and destroy enemy aircraft without ever seeing them. Some robotic systems became even more independent, such as the Navy's Phalanx close-in air defense weapon, which is "capable of autonomously performing its own search, detect, evaluation, track, engage, and kill assessment functions." (2) Thanks to advanced sensors and information processing, target recognition and identification methods are being developed to permit truly autonomous guided munitions. This includes munitions capable of autonomously engaging fixed and mobile ground targets, as well as targets in air and space? Warfare has begun to leave "human space."

A long step in this direction was taken in mid-2000 when the US Senate Armed Services Committee added $246.3 million to its version of the 2001 defense authorization bill to speed development of unmanned combat systems. The committee set two ambitious goals--within ten years, one-third of all deep-strike aircraft would be unmanned; and within 15 years, one-third of ground combat vehicles would operate without human beings on board. (4) At about the same time, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the US Army selected initial contractors for the Army's planned Objective Force. The concept calls for "a network-centric, distributed force that will include a manned command and control element/personnel carrier, a robotic direct-fire system, a robotic non-line of sight system, an all-weather robotic sensor system, coupled with other layered sensors." (5) According to Lieutenant Colonel John Blitch, program manager for DARPA's Tactical Mobile Robotics Program, "We have spent a lot of time and energy analyzing employment concepts for portable robotic platforms over the last few years and are convinced of their revolutionary impact on dismounted warfare." (6) These initiatives and others are rapidly taking us to a place where we may not want to go, but probably are unable to avoid.

Once this progression of ever more capable machines began, the US armed forces, and those of other advanced countries, started down a road that will probably remove warfare almost entirely from human hands. Several trends are contributing to this unsettling development, but the most important one is the rise of computer-driven information systems coupled with the proliferation of mobile-autonomous and semi-autonomous systems (i.e. "robots"). The devices created by this coupling greatly increase the speed at which things happen, especially weapon effects and information processing. A much less noticed trend, the development of very cheap and very small military systems, will also help to move warfare even further out of "human space." In combination, these advances have a synergistic effect. More and more aspects of warfighting are not only leaving the realm of human senses, but also crossing outside the limits of human reaction times. …

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